Playing Games with Narratives

In an age of spin and propaganda, one trick is to falsify the chronological order of events to turn reactions into instigations and vice versa, like when George W. Bush says he went to war in Iraq in response to bad intelligence when his decision predated the manufacturing of that intel, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recurring difficulty in public recriminations about past actions and debate about ongoing problems is the absence of a sense of sequence, of an accurate understanding of what happened when, and in particular of whether certain things happened before or after certain other things.

Many much-discussed events enter the recriminations and debates as individual points of controversy, detached from any time line or comprehensive narrative. They become like flashbacks in a creatively edited movie, in which the audience has to stay well engaged to keep track of what happened when. The film editor does not want to make the audience’s task toohard, lest his product sink into incoherence.

CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency’s headquarters. (U.S. government photo)

Outside the movies and in the real world, there often are people with an ax to grind who try to get us to fit the flashbacks into a preferred story, which may be inaccurate. Even without ax-grinders, our minds try to fit the detached events into a story that is easily comprehensible, even though again it may be inaccurate.

Such insensitivity to sequence may be found, for example, in recriminations over the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. The easily comprehensible story is that the decision was based on bum intelligence about unconventional weapons.

But the intelligence estimate that became the subject of nearly all the after-the-fact criticism wasn’t written, in fact, work on it hadn’t even begun, until after the administration had not only made the decision to go to war but had already moved into high gear its campaign to sell the war to the public. (There still was a congressional resolution to be voted on, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at the estimate.)

The political silliness over the lethal incident at Benghazi provides additional examples. The most glaring one came right at the outset, when Mitt Romney, seizing on the incident as a prop for his campaign, described as the Obama administration’s first “response” to the incident a statement that the U.S. embassy actually had issued before the incident.

Now we continue to hear endless professed outrage about what Susan Rice did or did not say, with her sayings thrown into public discussion alongside observations that have been made since then about what lay behind the attack on the U.S. facility. Lost again is any sense of sequence, and in this case any distinction between confusion and uncertainty in the early hours after the incident and understanding that has been acquired only later.

The Petraeus affair offers other recent examples, particularly in recriminations about how the FBI handled the case, how an able public servant has been lost because a private matter had become public, etc. Seemingly escaping notice is that the matter became public only when Petraeus himself announced his resignation and cited an extramarital affair as the reason. Neither the FBI nor anyone else had made anything public before that.

If the whole business were to have ended differently, it would have had to have been in one of two ways. One would be that nobody says anything publicly (with or without an FBI investigation), in which case the security implications of potential for blackmail would be very much an issue. The other possibility is that Petraeus discloses the affair but says he is not resigning.

We should give him enough credit for realizing that the image of an adulterer clinging to his job would have been inconsistent with both the values he propounded and his continued ability to lead his agency, and that the honorable thing for him to do was instead to resign.

Now there is the warfare in the Gaza Strip. I recalled the other day the sequence of events at the start of the current upsurge in violence. But the deficiency in temporal understanding is not just a matter of who started the newest round of fighting. Israeli demands that “the rockets must stop” before Israel ceases its lethal operations feed a general impression that the story is one of Hamas rockets first, and Israeli response afterward.

This overlooks that most of the rockets fired from the Strip since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead four years ago have come in these last few days, after, and in response to, Israel’s newest operation. So we have not only a demand for a one-sided cease-fire but also a bizarre rationale in which the stated reason for the operation is to prevent the very response that the operation itself engenders.

Gregory Johnsen, who has done extensive field research in Yemen, raises what may be something similar in U.S. policy. Johnsen argues persuasively that lethal strikes from drone aircraft have enabled terrorist groups to win more recruits who are angered over the collateral damage from the strikes. He cites as evidence how the estimated strength of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen in correlation with the frequency of the drone strikes.

Despite this indication of counter-productivity, do not be surprised to hear others argue that the increasing strength of Yemeni terrorist groups is all the more reason we need to pound them with Hellfire missiles.

There is no known cure for sequence deficit disorder. We can perhaps ameliorate some of the consequences by demanding that anyone who starts making assertions about Y being a consequence of X should make explicit reference to chronologies or time lines to support the assertion.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “Playing Games with Narratives

  1. FoonTheElder
    November 27, 2012 at 13:27

    Iraq was planned prior to Cheney/Bush taking office. There was a meeting of the Republican war supporters (Cheney/Rumsfeld/Feith and others) that produced a PNAC report that laid out the war against Iraq and their plans to increase their military influence throughout the world.

  2. elmerfudzie
    November 25, 2012 at 14:10

    Some of us have a deep credibility issue with higher echelon leaders directing law enforcement, defense and Intel branches of our government. I’m not referring to the GS12’s and 13’s who always perform well and with integrity. I’m speaking here about the (senior executive service) SES types. For example; Just days into the 911 investigation, the FBI director announced that he had the identities of the culprits in hand which later proved to be utterly false and even so, his statement seemed unbelievable at the time, since it took better than two years to unravel the Lockerbie riddle. The most secure building in the world, the pentagon, was most likely hit by a cruise missile yet all eighty plus security cameras situated around the grounds could not demonstrate anything to the contrary. Why? because all monitoring data was quickly confiscated by the FBI, the rest is history. This military coup against our country was successful and hurled the entire economy into a tailspin of endless war for endless profit, for the richest few. The junta generals want us all to believe that by chance the only heavily reinforced side of the pentagon was hit. This corruption and complicity went all the way up to the WH when four of their lot, on watch that fateful day, were promoted! After Pearl Harbor at least two commanders were summarily discharged and a few demotions as well. A clearer interpretation of present day politics can now be explained by admitting to this dark chapter. The motivations of men like Petreaus and his neo crowd are perfectly obvious. They are in dire straights and it seems that only the nuclear option remains for the middle east. Petraeus does not want to be handcuffed at some future Nuremberg trial, so be bowed out all on his own using the very goods he knew they had on him. In review, an over extended military, bankrupt economy, entanglements with foreign countries (Israel)- something George Washington warned us about, no congressional oversite of black budgets and false flag ops. The final nails in the coffin of democracy were the Patriot and NDA Acts. Farewell justice, farewell happy endings.

  3. Hillary
    November 22, 2012 at 05:06

    Spam Free WordPress rejected your comment because you did not enter the correct password or it was empty.

    Lets all admit that America’s pathetic love affair with everything American perpetuates the fantasy of American benevolence to foreigners by their murder rape and destruction in far away places.

    Its time to expose many American heroes as genocidal such as many US presidents like Theodore Roosevelt who defended the expansion of whites across the American continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”

    Happy Thanksgiving .

  4. F. G. Sanford
    November 21, 2012 at 22:10

    Sequential Deficit Disorder is an affliction to which neither the right nor the left is immune. The best thing that could happen to Neocon protagonism would be the installment of the war-mongering, abrasive product of the incestuous think-tank nepotism cloaked in the hypocrisy of “Humanitarian Interventionism” that is currently embodied in the person of Susan Rice. In an effort to indict Lindsey Graham and John McCain on insinuations of race and gender discrimination, and their stupidity to play into the naïve hands of progressives by opposing her nomination for all the wrong reasons, the ascension of this firebrand Harpy to the office from which she can do the most possible harm is almost guaranteed. Notice that even Joe Lieberman has abandoned his support for them on this issue. That should be scary, considering where he stands on everything else in the Middle East. The irony is that the Benghazi debacle owes more to blow-back from Rice’s war mongering and lack of diplomatic savoir faire than any attempt, real or imagined, to obscure the time-line leading to to Benghazi. Progressives are busy reveling in the demise of the fraudulent Neocon hero who resurrected “counterinsurgency” from it’s stench-filled tomb in Viet Nam and brought the U. S. Military its Constitutionally abhorrent policy of “spiritual fitness”. General Petraeus may have executed disastrous policies, but people like Susan Rice have been responsible for creating them. Her intellectual legacy traces its ancestry back along a direct line to the likes of Madelaine Albright and Jeane Kikpatrick. Instead of debacles caused by COIN, the future of U.S. Foreign Relations informed by a new and far more cynical doctrine is likely to prevail. R2P will no doubt pit the already dubious AFRICOM “Mission Statement” delusion against populations struggling to emerge from the darkness of “Darkest Africa”. Ms. Rice has already contributed to the humanitarian horrors there through her support for Zenawi and his subsequent atrocities. The fact that she is African American and female will no doubt, in this case, trump any rational discussion of the disastrous time-line she has helped to orchestrate. Out Petraeus, in Rice, and the AIPAC Trojan Horse once again triumphs over reason and common sense.

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